Contemporary Styles of Ukrainian Churches

Sts. Peter and Paul Ukrainian Catholic Church, Canora, SK –
a modern building with a traditional design

For the purpose of this discussion, “contemporary styles” refers to the look of the building and not to its actual time of construction. There are many instances where churches have been built using modern methods and construction material (for example, steel beams, prefabricated concrete, etc.) yet can still be called traditional in style rather than contemporary in style. Therefore, a contemporary church style is one that would not have been observed several decades ago, while a traditional style is one that has been observed for centuries.

For example, Sts. Peter and Paul Ukrainian Catholic Church in Canora, Saskatchewan, is a traditional Greek-cross design with five domes, completed in 1964. To look at it, one could see it fitting in comfortably in any town in Ukraine. The fact that it was built with modern iron beam construction techniques does not take away from the actual traditional Kievan style of this church. Sts. Peter and Paul Church is pleasing to look at because of the fluidity which is inherent a traditional style such as this — a style that evolved over several centuries.

Contemporary styles began to emerge in great numbers not long after World War II. At that time, Canada was entering a period of general affluence in the post-war era. The Ukrainian-Canadian population was growing and many parishes could afford to employ professional architects to build churches on a large scale. The days of getting together as a community and building a church solely with volunteer labour had come to an end, as beautiful as that tradition may have been.
The designers of contemporary looking churches do not necessarily entirely throw out all traditional concepts of how a Ukrainian church ought to look. In most instances they take some elements of traditional Ukrainian architecture and weave them into the design, while trying to balance a distinguishing manner of artistic expression with the functionality of the building. Architects are artists and they do not fear expressing artistic licence when that licence is granted to them. Whether or not a contemporary design is liturgically suitable may be an entirely different question.

In Winnipeg there are several very modern looking Ukrainian churches. Of these, undoubtedly the most fascinating is St. Nicholas Ukrainian Catholic Church. It is of vast size, but actually it is the unique design that truly impresses.

St. Nicholas Ukrainian Catholic Church, Winnipeg, MB

St. Nicholas Church is not with out some traditional elements. For example, it essentially follows a Greek-cross floor plan. Although, the rounded roofs over each arm of the cross are not typical of any of the traditional styles. The nave is crowned with a massive semicircular dome that requires no supporting pendentives. This is only possible using modern steel-enforced construction techniques.

The building imitates the traditional five-domes that that frequently found in Kievan style churches. Except that the four smaller domes are not really domes at all. Rather, they are globe-like structures, each surmounted by a cross.

At St. Nicholas Church, the smaller domes are replaced with globe-like structures

In Roblin, Manitoba, the Ukrainian Catholic Redemptorist Fathers built a minor seminary. St. Vladimir Chapel serves the seminary and it is of a very contemporary design. It has a Greek-style semicircular dome, but it appears to be placed nearly over the sanctuary rather than the centre of the church. The building is basically rectangular shaped. The most striking feature of the chapel is the enormous bell tower located in the front yard. The tower is slender, highly stylized, and contains loudspeakers rather than actual bells. However, it is nonetheless reminiscent of the massive bell towers in Ukraine that were built tall not merely to hold bells. They were also built for defensive purposes and doubled as a lookout towers.

St. Vladimir Seminary Chapel in Roblin, MB

Sts. Volodymyr and Olga Ukrainian Catholic Church in Two Hills, Alberta, presents an interesting choice in design. It is the second church or the parish and Bishop Savaryn blessed it in 1972. The church is striking in appearance because one automatically feels that it looks very modern. On closer inspection, one sees that it does have the five traditional domes that are tapered in a Kievan spirit and the church appears to have a cross-in-square floor plan. The exterior exhibits a combination of brick and stucco.

Sts. Volodymyr and Olga Ukrainian Catholic Church, Two Hills, AB,
combines modern and traditional styles

What is odd is that, added to these Kievan elements in Sts. Volodymyr and Olga Church, there are the piddashshia and opasannia that are characteristics in certain styles of Western Ukrainian wooden churches. There is a certain irony here. The piddashshia and opasannia are architectural devices that arose out of a necessity to keep rainwater off the walls of wooden churches—primarily of log construction. For whatever reason, they were rarely used in churches constructed during the periods of heaviest Ukrainian immigration to Canada. However, now we see a church that has the piddashshia and opasannia, but they are no longer functionally required because the church is built of modern building materials.

Of course, while the origin of the piddashshia and opasannia was completely functional, they became a big part of church ornamentation in Western Ukraine. So, there is no reason that they cannot be used simply for the sake of adding a particular pleasing style to a church. What makes the Sts. Volodymyr and Olga Church modern looking is the stylization of the various elements taken from different architectural sources. The overall look is somewhat more rigid than a genuinely traditional design.

Sts. Volodymyr and Olga Church, Two Hills, AB – detail of belfry

The belfry of Sts. Volodymyr and Olga Church even goes further with the high degree of stylization. On it we see that the “cupola” is actually just a few hoops that look somewhat dome-like. This trend of representing domes with a series of hoops surmounted by a cross has become fairly common in modern-looking churches. We see something very similar in the near by St. Olga Ukrainian Catholic Church in Vermillion, Alberta. Although, in this instance, the hoops are more semicircular in shape.

St. Olga Ukrainian Catholic Church, Vermillion, AB

Unlike St. Nicholas Church in Winnipeg and Sts. Volodymyr and Olga Church in Two Hills, we do not see any other exterior elements in the Vermillion church that are either Ukrainian or Eastern Rite. Thus the “pseudo-domes” are the only hint that this is a Ukrainian church.
Many churches built since World War II retain so many elements of traditional styles that one is hard pressed to say definitively whether the style is contemporary or traditional. Still, other Ukrainian churches have been designed such that one is truly hard pressed to identify anything about the exterior of the church that would recognize it as being either Ukrainian or Eastern Rite. If the cross were removed, one might not even be able to identify it as a church. For example, St. Michael Ukrainian Catholic Church in Winnipeg clearly looks like some sort of institution but, without the cross, one would be hard pressed to immediately recognise it as a church.

St. Michael Ukrainian Catholic Church, Winnipeg, MB – a thoroughly modern design